Talons of Night

“They appear to have been eaten by some sort of large predators,” Garak observed, kicking the bleached skeleton with his booted foot. The heap of bones crumbled to the sand with a soft clatter. “It’s odd that when we scanned for life signs from orbit, we didn’t pick up any readings indicating the presence of carnivores.”

“Considering that we had a major plasma leak and were busy making an emergency landing at the time, that oversight doesn’t surprise me.” Bashir turned away from the impressive array of skeletons that decorated the canyon’s depths. “Now let’s get back to the shuttle before whatever ate them decides it’s still hungry.”

Garak, not looking at all concerned, had a tricorder out and was making a leisurely scan of the nearest pile of bones. “I don’t think we need to worry. They were all eaten twenty-two years ago, except for that one over there, which is forty-four years old.”

“Am I detecting a pattern here?” Bashir increased his pace toward the shuttlecraft just over the canyon’s rim. Perhaps it was his imagination, but the light from the planet’s three suns definitely seemed fainter than it had been a moment ago.

With long strides, Garak easily caught up to him. “My dear Julian, I really don’t see a need for panic. We have our phasers, and my tricorder isn’t detecting any life signs nearby. I’d prefer to stay outside and enjoy this delightful climate. It reminds me so much of Cardassia.”

“This is not the time to indulge in nostalgia. Didn’t you notice the unusual planetary alignment? We’re about to experience a total eclipse — which, according to my calculations, occurs every twenty-two years — and somehow I’ve gotten the distinct impression that we don’t want to find out what comes out at night.”

“I’ve always thought of desert nights as quite pleasant. Especially in your company.” Garak paused and glanced back over his shoulder as the two men reached the top of the canyon. As the light faded from the sky, a distant screeching could be heard. A gigantic swarm of winged beasts suddenly rose from several hillocks on the horizon.

Bashir had the shuttle’s main hatch open. “Garak, get in here.”

The howling swarm flew closer.

“Reminds me of a species that once nested in a cave on my father’s estate,” Garak observed, “somewhat similar to Earth’s bats, I’d say.”

“We are not on a goddamn safari, you idiot! Now, get your leathery Cardassian rump into this shuttle!”

“As I recall, you described my posterior in much more poetic terms last night . . .”

“Will you just shut up and move!”

As the swarm approached the canyon, the beasts’ huge sharp beaks and enormous size made it plain they were not related in any way to bats. Vultures, perhaps, except that the quantity of bones on the canyon’s floor made it plain that they didn’t just confine themselves to scavenging. Whatever their proper scientific classification, these creatures were looking for prey.

“Perhaps we should continue our discussion indoors,” Garak conceded. He climbed up into the shuttle quite briskly indeed, although he made a point of whistling a cheerful tune as if he didn’t feel concerned at all.

Even after the hatch closed, the raptors’ screeching could still be heard faintly outside the small craft. Although he’d run a thorough check on the hull’s structural integrity after the landing, Bashir checked again, just to be sure. No problems. He felt foolish for worrying; the shuttle certainly hadn’t sustained any damage severe enough to let one of those monsters get inside.

He became aware that Garak was standing beside him, looking down at the readouts. “We should be just fine until someone gets here from Deep Space Nine to pick us up. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of days, assuming they received our distress call before we lost communications.” Bashir tried to sound optimistic.

The raptors’ howling intensified, and a vigorous banging started to come from several sections of the hull. Garak, now looking considerably less cheerful, swiveled his head from one side to the other. “And if they didn’t receive it? Just how long is this eclipse going to last, anyway?”

“Don’t worry, Garak, we’ll be gone long before then.” Bashir almost had to shout to be heard over the clangor. He reached for the tactical control panel. “And I have something for our friends out there.”

“Julian, don’t . . .”

The shuttle’s forward phasers stabbed into the mass of raptors, producing satisfyingly loud shrieks. The banging on the hull ended abruptly as the beasts attacking the shuttle became aware that there was some fresh-cooked meat to be had in front of it. A feeding frenzy promptly ensued, as the dead and injured raptors were torn to pieces by the others.

“I tried to tell you.” Garak sounded sulky. “Most of the bones in the canyon looked like they came from this species. They’re cannibals, attacking one another at the slightest sign of weakness. Now that you’ve given them something to feed on, the entire swarm will show up here. And after they’re finished eating the dead and wounded . . .”

Garak’s voice was drowned out by a much louder banging that seemed to come from every exposed section of the hull. A dull vibration could even be heard from beneath the shuttle. Did the damned things burrow, too? Bashir shook his head and tried to convince himself, once again, that there was nothing to worry about.

“I don’t care how vicious those things are, they can’t possibly peck through solid duranium,” Bashir declared, as much for his own reassurance as Garak’s.

“Actually, there are several species known to be capable of secreting an acid strong enough to . . .”

“And this isn’t one of them! Shit!” Bashir shouted, furious with himself because he’d just been thinking the same thing. A Starfleet officer didn’t cower at the prospect of monsters screeching in the dark. All the same, he had to admit that he wouldn’t mind a little more light in the shuttle.

“Computer,” Bashir instructed in a voice as calm as he could manage, “increase illumination to one hundred twenty percent of normal.”

The lights flickered and, an instant later, went out completely. Not even the control panels still glowed; it was pitch black. Bashir reached out and felt Garak’s broad shoulder, now trembling slightly.

“They’re inside the shuttle. They cut the power,” Garak hissed.

“They cut the power? What do you mean, they cut the power? They’re animals.” Bashir couldn’t even hear his own sigh of exasperation over the beasts’ howling. He knew Garak had a phobia about dark, enclosed areas, and this definitely wasn’t the time for his companion to start freaking out. “Computer, emergency lights.”

Obediently responding to Bashir’s command, the shuttle’s lighting came back up in the dimmer emergency mode. Garak glanced around wildly, as if expecting something to leap from the shadows.

“Computer,” Bashir continued, “how many life signs are on board?” By now, the screeching and banging had grown so loud that Bashir couldn’t be sure where all of it was coming from. The computerized voice sounded very far away as it replied, “Two life signs present.”

He turned to Garak and forced himself to smile. “See, they’re not inside. We already know that the shuttle’s power systems were damaged. Just a coincidence that the lights went out when they did. Nothing’s going to get through the hull.”

“What if the internal sensors are damaged, too?” Garak didn’t sound at all reassured. “The shuttle could be swarming with the things, and we’d never know about it until they ate us.”

A particularly loud shriek came from overhead.

Of all the potential romantic partners on Deep Space Nine, Bashir thought, I have to go and pick a goddamn paranoid Cardassian with claustrophobia. He forced himself to breathe slowly and deliberately. Everything was all right. There were no raptors inside the shuttle.

Bashir turned away from Garak and started to walk toward the back of the shuttle. “I’m going to check the cargo area, just to make sure everything’s all right.”

Not surprisingly, Garak trailed at his heels. “Really, Julian, I can’t let you go into danger alone. We’ll both check the cargo. You wouldn’t happen to have brought aboard a few undeclared crates of weapons, would you?”

“Of course not. It’s all medical supplies.”

The unmistakable sound of tearing metal could be heard above the raptors’ screeching just as Bashir and Garak passed the main hatch.

“Warning,” the computer announced. “Main hatch is not secure.”

Garak checked the settings on his phaser for the tenth time. “I thought you said they couldn’t peck through duranium?”

“Well, the hatch is a more vulnerable area,” Bashir had to concede. “But I’m still not convinced they’re capable of getting all the way through it.”

Just then, something banged against the hatch hard enough to leave a visible dent in the metal.

“No doubt about it, we’re doomed now. It’s been good knowing you, Julian.” Taking his human lover into his embrace, Garak planted a fervent kiss on the doctor’s lips just as two more large dents appeared in the hatch.

Bashir had to admit it was a damned good kiss. But did they really have to be about to get devoured by raptors before Garak would show this much enthusiasm? As he responded to the kiss, Bashir kept one eye on the hatch, now buckling before the monsters’ onslaught. They’d be inside the shuttle in moments.

With a screech of tortured metal, the main hatch began to separate from the hull.

Garak released his grip on Bashir, knelt behind a large crate, and raised his phaser toward the hatch. Bashir crouched beside him and likewise took aim, trying not to think about what it would be like to be eaten.

Almost inaudible over the din, a familiar voice unexpectedly came over Bashir’s combadge. “Nog to Bashir. I’ve arrived in orbit with Ensign Woo, and I’ll be transporting down in a moment to begin making repairs to your shuttle.”

Bashir and Garak, in complete unison, yelped “No!”

Nog sounded surprised. “Why, what’s the matter?”

Huge scaly talons reached through the half-open hatch and clawed the deck. The raptors screeched in anticipation.

“Let me put it this way, Nog, it might be a good idea to check your sensors for indigenous life signs in the vicinity.”

Garak looked disgusted. “Can’t you just tell him to beam us up, already?”

The hatch buckled even farther.

“Yeah, we’re picking up what looks like a flock of birds,” Nog answered. “They’re probably attracted to the shuttle’s heat. What’s the big deal?”

“This may surprise you, Nog, but those are not birds, and heat isn’t what they’re after. Just transport us to your shuttle . . .”

“And hurry up about it!” Garak yelled.

As the transporter took Bashir and Garak, the main hatch tore completely off, and the raptors swarmed into the shuttle. They howled in fury as their prey disappeared before their eyes.

Bashir, still in a defensive crouch as he materialized on the orbiting shuttlecraft’s transporter pad, had to restrain an impulse to leap up and dance wildly. Garak, much more pale than usual, looked even more affected by the experience.

Ensign Woo just stood there without a word.

Nog shook his head and muttered, “Weenies.”